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Why I Won't Tell You You're Pretty

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After reading Lisa Bloom's "How to Talk to Little Girls" in 2011, I put a lot of effort into steering my comments away from children's looks. I bit my tongue when meeting three-year-old girls who were just SO CUTE with their tiny little mary-janes. I put on a serious face and asked questions like "what's your favourite book?" instead of "did you pick that dress?"

It seems like it would be no big deal, especially for a feminist woman, but I really had to stop and think before blurting out "OHMYGODYOURCURLS!" to a chubby moppet and her equal parts proud/startled parent. But I worked on it -- and I really thought that focusing my remarks on looks was out of my system, and I felt proud.

Apparently, though, I only rewired my brain to speak that way to girls ages 0-12. Whoops.

A recent article on Slate called "How to Talk to a Woman Without Saying 'Great Boots'" was a reminder that it's not just little girls who need to be told they're worth more than their big blue eyes and stylish attire.

According to a report by the Public Health Agency of Canada, 36 per cent of girls report having self-confidence in grade six. That number plummets to 14 per cent in grade 10, at the delicate age of 15.

That probably explains the timing behind the fact that "in women between the ages of 15 and 25, 1-2% have anorexia and 3-5% have bulimia." And these diseases have up to a one in five chance of being fatal.

If telling a girl she's cute, and her subsequently getting an eating disorder seems like a bit of a leap, it's only because the sexualization of women is so very sneaky. And sexualization happens when a person's value is being derived entirely from her appearance or attractiveness (see: any ad campaign ever).

Research ties sexualization to "three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression or depressed mood."

If you're getting depressed just reading this, sorry, but it gets worse.

This entrenched understanding that girls and women are first and foremost ornamental is nowhere more apparent than in the YouTube video trend "Am I Pretty?"

The painful-to-watch video craze generally goes like this: A young girl between 10 and 16 shoots a first-person video where she asks anyone who cares to comment if she is pretty or ugly. In almost all the videos I watched, the girl says people at school have told her she is ugly, and that she wants people to "be really honest." If you search "Am I pretty or ugly" on YouTube you'll get over 200,000 hits.

The young girl in the video above says, "Please be honest, because a lot of people say that I'm ugly and I just wanted to know the truth." It kind of broke my heart.

But then, I searched the profile of "lynn12388" and found that she had commented on another "Am I Pretty?" video...and what she said was really mean.

"Your so ugly put a trash bag over your head me and my 12 friends are a my b-day party and they all think your ugly were not mean its the truth"

If that's a microcosm of what girls today are feeling, we have a serious problem on our hands.

Whether or not the video stars are fishing for compliments is not the issue -- it's the fact that they feel the need to do something so simultaneously vain and vulnerable to get a hit of that validation we've hooked them on.

So how do we stop the cycle? That's the toughest part. For me, it's a lot easier to change what I say when I'm talking with kids -- I'm the adult, therefore I have control over the situation, and I'm not trying to impress toddlers with compliments so they'll invite me to their cool house parties. It's the adults I struggle with.

The problem with the Slate article though, is that the adult options it offers up in lieu of "cute skirt" are painful! "How young are you?" -- yeah, I'm not going to say that to someone I've just met. "What's your favourite piece of wearable technology?" -- do you want me to get punched in the face, Slate?

But it's not Slate's fault -- the alternatives are so bad because it's so hard to break the habit of breaking the ice by complimenting someone's looks. It's right there in front of you! SOCIETAL PRESSURE, ETC.!

Some of it is rooted in good intention -- I think that giving and getting compliments can be a confidence-booster. Like most humans, I have days when I hate my body, so it's always a bit of a happy jolt to be told I look nice, or that someone likes my style.

But no woman should live her life thinking she's only liked for her appearance, or that said appearance is the be all and end all. Girls and women (and boys and men too -- 10-15 per cent of eating disorder sufferers are male, after all) need to be told they have good ideas, that they are interesting, funny, and valuable beyond their aquiline noses.

So next time you meet someone new, or even hang out with an old friend, and you feel the desire to point out how totally skinny she looks lately, start small and try saying anything else. Then take a mental note. Pretty soon you'll have doled out a list of compliments that have so much more meaning and value than the generic "great boots."

It's a sad state of affairs when 12-year-old girls are desperate for compliments from complete strangers, and even sadder when that turns into grown women unable to connect with each other beyond the lowest common denominator of conversation.

Let's just agree that we're all a lot more interesting than that.

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